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The Midnight Notes Collective © 2002


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The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Fear of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary for commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them. -- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

1. Introduction.

There is now a fledgling anti-interventionist, anti-war movement in the US. It will have a lot of work to do in the near future, although the present threat of war on Iraq is the most pressing issue it faces. The question is: can the antiwar movement do its work effectively and successfully? At the moment it is not completely marginalized, if the votes in Congress are any indication. On October 9, between one-quarter to one-third of the congressional representatives voted against granting George W. Bush "war powers." But in order to show itself as expressing the majority perspective in this country, it needs new arguments, a new respect (as in "look again") for its opponents, a deeper understanding of the reasons for the actions of its opponents, and a realistic assessment of their weaknesses. For its old arguments do not seem convincing to the majority of US citizens, and its lack of curiosity about its opponents and their reasoning is dulling its strategic sense.

2. Losing Arguments.

In the run up to the Iraqi war, the anti-war movement has put forth a number of arguments to the U.S. public to justify its opposition to the Bush Administration's position. Two of the most important are: (1) an invasion of Iraq will lead to the death of many innocent civilians (on top of the hundreds of thousands killed in the last decade directly or indirectly by the sanctions) and that is immoral; (2) the important principle of national sovereignty will be violated by such an invasion (even if it is done with UN approval), and that threatens to bring the world back to a Hobbesian "state of nature" where nations will war against nations with the excuse that they do not like each other's treatment of their populations. Neither of these arguments has had much persuasive effect. Why?

The first argument is sound. It is true that a U.S. attack on Iraq under conditions of contemporary warfare, especially in the way the U.S. military fights war so that it will suffer no casualties from enemy fire, would involve the death of thousands of innocent civilians. It is also true that such deaths are immoral, since a government's intentional inflicting of civilian casualties is a war crime.

But unlike the picture that logicians paint, sound arguments are not necessarily winning arguments. Perfectly reasonable people can agree that it is immoral to kill innocent Iraqi civilians but also come to the conclusion that it is more immoral to leave Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party in power since it can cause even more Iraqi and non-Iraqi (including U.S. civilians') deaths. At the moment, it appears that the second argument is trumping the first within the minds of many moral and reasonable (and immoral and non-reasonable) people in the US.

The "national sovereignty" argument is also problematic. It is true that national sovereignty is an important political value, especially since the period of decolonization. Third World governments have rightly appealed to this principle to criticize the tendency of old and new colonial powers to intervene in their internal affairs and bring about "regime changes" favorable to the past and future imperialists. People in the antiwar movement are likely to have been in one or more efforts to oppose U.S., British and/or French interventions in the Third World, so they are sympathetic to this argument.

The problem is that these very same people are strong supporters of human rights doctrines that contradict an absolute "national sovereignty" principle. Antiwar activists do not in general believe that any government which violates the human rights of its population or is preparing to threaten the human rights of people outside its territory ought to have sovereignty. Consequently, any use of this argument has a tendency to divide the movement internally. We saw this in the NATO-Kosovo and the U.S.-Afghanistan wars. Defending the Taliban's national sovereignty, for example, was hardly an easy pill for the feminists in the antiwar movement to swallow. So, this argument is even weaker than the first, since is it both unconvincing to those outside the movement and tends to divide the movement from within.

This means that new arguments must be devised that both trump the counter-arguments of the opposition and do not divide the movement internally. But why has the antiwar movement been so inadequate in its arguments? We think it is due in large part to the antiwar movement's lack of respect for its opponents in the Bush Administration and to its failure to grasp the underlying imperative propelling the administrationís actions. It looks at the ungrammatical President, the secretive Vice-President, the Dr. Strangelovian Secretary of Defense and the Lady Macbeth-like National Security Advisor and concludes they are just lackies of a right-wing conspiracy fueled by the oil industry. However, the greatest error in any struggle is to disrespect your opponents. This adage is especially true when the other side is winning!

3. Oil, War and Neoliberalism.

We are told that Communism collapsed in 1989, but many have argued that the political economy of post-WWII capitalism, Keynesianism, collapsed a decade before to be replaced by a system that was called at first Thatcherism and Reaganism, and later neoliberalism and/or globalization. This system claimed that the basic institution of modern society ought to be the Market not the State, and that the best form of all social interactions is the commodity form. This conception of social life had a great propaganda triumph with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc. More importantly, it set into motion a remarkable shift in the economic policies of most Third World countries (under the name of Structural Adjustment Policies) that opened them to foreign investment, lower tariffs, and unrestricted movement of money across their borders. Finally, it undermined the guarantees of subsistence (early retirement, unemployment benefits, health care, free education, etc.) that the working class in Western Europe and North America had won in a century of struggle (Midnight Notes, 1992).

The early 1990s was a remarkable period of triumph for neoliberalism and globalization. Never before had the economic policies of the planet been so homogenous, while institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization were given the financial and legal power to keep the governments of the planet true to the rules of the neoliberal global economy.

Up until July 1997, the supporters of this political economy seemed invincible. Then, the "Asian Financial Crisis" struck. Ever since, there have been breathtaking reversals that have put neoliberalism into question more rapidly than the rapid pace of its triumphs. We need not detail the recent stock market bubble burstings, the recessions, the financial system collapses, the dramatic devaluations, and the fiascoes. They constitute an international crisis of neoliberalism and globalization -- but not simply because the 1990s globalization boom ended in the "loss" of trillions of dollars in a very short time.

First, they signaled a serious ideological defeat, for at the very moment of this collapse an international anti-globalization movement had taken to the streets of the major cities of the planet to contest the institutions of the neoliberal order (Yuen et al., 2001). This post-Cold War oppositional movement, especially after the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle at the end of 1999, voiced a powerful critique of the system whose truth literally materialized before the world's eyes at the instant of its articulation.

On top of that, the fraudulent nature of neoliberal capitalism revealed itself in the so-called scandals involving Enron, Arthur Anderson, Tyco, WorldCom, etc., showing that the corporate "masters of the universe" had taken the neoliberal gospel of deregulation to be synonymous with a license to defraud their workers and, much more worrisome for the system, their investors.

Equally problematic was the inability of this neoliberal regime to actually increase wages and income for a decisive part of the U.S. proletariat and the "middle classes" in the Third World in the 1990s. Neoliberalism is often called a 20/80 system. If it can dramatically increase the incomes of at least 20% of a country's or the world's population, then the other 80% could be forced to go along with the project. Whatever the wisdom of this cynicism, by the beginning of the 21st century neoliberalism's failure to do even this was becoming clear.

In the U.S., for example, the more than twenty years of wage decline was reversed in 1997, and for the following two years the average wages increased modestly. This was the first consistent multiple-year increase since the 1960s (Caffentzis, 2001). But by 2000 this increase had halted, and wages have stagnated since. A similar problem revealed itself in Africa, Latin America and much of post-1997 Asia (with China as an exception): the "middle classes" were being decimated. This failure was especially revealed in the Argentine bank deposit freeze in the last year which reversed the gains of Argentina's 20% and have made them sworn enemies of neoliberalism.

Often when one system enters into crisis, ruling classes' strategists have something else in place. But not always. In the case of neoliberalism/globalization, there is no alternative system waiting in the wings, for the moment at least. It has to be preserved, or elseÖ

The Bush electoral coup of 2000 made it clear that there were very powerful forces in the world (from the Supreme Court to the major corporate CEOs) which were willing to face governmental illegitimacy at the heart of the system in order to put the Bush group in the position to deal with the crisis.

That should give the antiwar movement pause. The Bush Administration takes power not in a moment of business-as-usual, but in the midst of a systemic crisis that transcends a mere recessionary blip in the US.

The Bush Administration's answer to the crisis of liberalism is simple: War. The 1980s and 1990s saw the building of an elaborate international regime of trade, capital transfer and money flow, but it did not see the development of an institution of violence that would enforce the rules of neoliberalism. Certainly the UN was hardly the vehicle for such a job, since the important players (the permanent members of the Security Council) were not a unified collection of states that could or even want to enforce the rules of neoliberalism. Nor was there on the historical horizon an international body of armed men and women that would have the global monopoly of violence. The Clinton/Gore effort to create a such body ń one the U.S. government could control from behind the scenes under the guise of a formal equality among national participants -- was anathema to the most powerful fraction of the U.S. ruling class. Its suspicion of Clinton's efforts was behind the extraordinary animus expressed in the impeachment proceedings of 1998 and the electoral coup of 2000. There was a genuine fear that the Clintonites would sign away, on a formal level at least, the U.S.'s imperial role in the 21st century.

Supporters of the Bush administration often described this role by analogy with the place of the British empire in the 19th century world system. That century's international gold standard and free trade (called economic liberalism) required a hegemonic state that would make sure that the rules of the system were followed. That state was Great Britain. A central ideological problem with liberalism both old and new is that it presents itself as an autonomous, self-regulating system, but it is not. It needs to have an enforcer, since individuals and governments, especially those who are being put into crisis or are chronic losers, are tempted to break the rules. In the 21st century, according to this reasoning, the only state that could play Great Britain's role is the United States. (For a sophisticated presentation of this argument see Ferguson, 2001; for a discussion of the military aspects of the U.S. role in this scenario see Armstrong, 2002.)

Of course, history is over-determined (i.e., there are multiple causes for most historical events) and "it is no accident" that Iraq has become the first major test case of this policy. After all, Iraq, a member of OPEC, has the second largest proven oil reserves on the planet. Therefore, Iraq's fate is of vital interest to anyone interested in the oil industry, and the Bush family, Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice were and are all deeply involved with oil. They are familiar with the oil industry's problems and sympathetic to the oil companiesí desire to return to the world before the nationalization of the oil fields that took place throughout the world in the early 1970s. Certainly a quick "regime change" in Iraq leading to US-imposed privatization of the oil fields would help set the clock back before 1970, and not only in Iraq.

However, increasing the immediate profits of the oil companies, though important, is not the consideration that makes Iraq the first object of the new Bush policy. Oil and natural gas are basic commodities for the running of the world's industrial apparatus, from plastics to chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and energy for cars and electric power plants. Whoever controls the commodity, its price and the profits it generates, has a powerful impact on the whole capitalist system. Yet oil is an unusual commodity. It is exempt from the rules of neoliberalism. The trading rules of the WTO do not apply to oil; and OPEC, a self-proclaimed if not completely successful oligopoly, is tolerated in a period when the "free market" ought to be determining the price of all commodities, especially basic ones. How could it be that even though OPEC now controls about 80% of the "proven oil reserves," it operates in contradiction to the larger rules of the neoliberal game? No wonder neoliberalism is in crisis.

This peculiar singularity is intensified by the nature of the main political figures in OPEC (aside from Iraq's Ba'ath regime): in Iran there are the desperate Islamic clerics, in Saudi Arabia there is a ruling class that is divided between globalization and Islamic fundamentalism, in Venezuela there is the populist government of Chavez, in Ecuador there is a government that was nearly seized in a rebellion by the indigenous, in Libya there is Ghaddafi (need more be said?), in Algeria there is a government that just narrowly repressed an Islamist revolution, and in Nigeria and Indonesia there are "democratic" governments with questionable legitimacy that could collapse at any moment. This list constitutes a "rogues galleryî from the point of view of the thousands of capitalists who send a tremendous portion of "their" surplus to OPEC governments via their purchases of oil and gas. With such a composition, OPEC is hardly an institution to energize a neoliberal world.

Of course, OPEC was not always a political or economic problem. In the 1960s and in the early 1970s, OPEC was a relatively pliable organization, and nationalization and monopolistic pricing were still acceptable elements of the accepted Keynesian political economy of the day. Iran was under the Shah, the Ba'athists had just lost their Nasserite zeal, Ghaddafi's fate was still undeveloped, Venezuela was a tame neo-colony, Indonesia was under the communist-killer Suharto, Nigeria was under the control of General Gowan, and the Saudi Arabian monarchy's Islamic fundamentalism was considered a quaint facade under which the movement of billions of "petro-dollars" could be recycled back into the U.S.-European economies (Midnight Notes, 1992).

But that was then and this is now. From the Bush Administration's viewpoint, OPEC needs to be either destroyed or transformed in order to lay the foundation of a neoliberal world that would be able to overcome the crisis and truly control the energy resources of the planet. The Bush administration is putting as much pressure as possible on OPEC's members. In April of 2002, there was a U.S.-supported coup d'etat in Venezuela against the Chavez government, the leading price hawk in OPEC. It failed. In August 2002, it was Saudi Arabia's turn. The RAND corporation issued a report claiming that the Saudi Arabian monarchy was the "real enemy" in the Middle East and should be threatened with invasion if it did not stop supporting anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli groups. However, that verbal threat has been nullified by the Bush Administration as its war plans have unfolded.

The Iraq government is clearly the weak link in OPEC. It lost two wars it instigated. It is legally in thrall to a harsh reparations regime, it cannot control its own air space, and it cannot even import freely but must have UN accountants approve every item it wants to buy on the open market. Ideologically and economically it is prostrate.

A US-sponsored Iraqi government committed to neoliberal policies would definitely be in a position to undermine OPEC from within or, if it leaves OPEC, from without. Such a transformation would make it possible to begin a massive investment in the energy industry that might be an alternative to the spectacular failure of the high-tech sector that has dissolved hundreds of billions of dollars. Rather than the now-uncertain computer- and bio-technology sectors, the more ětraditionalî oil-driven sectors will be given primacy in re-launching profitability.

There is an additional reason for Iraq having the dubious honor of being the first test case for the hegemonic role of the US: weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein's regime has been very interested in investing in industrial development that has in the past also been used to develop chemical and biological weapons. These weapons were used extensively in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Bush administration has put forward a doctrine with respect to Iraq that, if generalized, would look something like this:

(1) Almost any advanced technological production process can be used to create "weapons of mass destruction."

(2) Any such production process not directly controlled by a multinational corporation (MNC) headquartered in the US (or Japan or Western Europe) can be used by a government to create weapons of mass destruction.

(3) No government outside a list agreed upon by the US government ought to have the capacity to build weapons of mass destruction.

Therefore, no government (whether democratically elected or not) outside of the agreed list can be allowed to exist unless its advanced technology is controlled by an acceptable MNC.

This argument means that the US government has taken on the role of overseeing and vetoing all forms of industrial development throughout the world in perpetuum. Autonomous industrial development not controlled by an approved MNC by any government is out of order. Hence this "war on terrorism" doctrine becomes a basis for the military control of the economic development policies of any government on the planet.

The consequences of such a doctrine are, of course, enormous, although their immediate impact is on the Hussein regime (and any of its successors). For even if Saddam Hussein could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there were no chemical, biological or atomic weapons in Iraq at this moment, the Bush doctrine would not be satisfied. The mere existence of industrial capacity not owned and controlled by MNCs in Iraq that could be used in the construction of weapons of mass destruction would violate the doctrine.

This doctrine shows us that the struggle now unfolding in Iraq is not only about oil. What is at stake is the shape of planetary industrial development for decades to come. The combination of the restoration of oil-driven accumulation with the imposition of the Bush doctrine on global industrial development ensures that the "suburban-petroleum" mode of life we are living in the U.S. (and increasingly in Western Europe) will lead to endless war.

Go on to Part Two of this article.




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